Jean Welch is the longest-tenured coach in any sport in the Big Eight Conference.

On Saturday, the Janesville Craig gymnastics coach began her 29th season at the helm as her team hosted the Cougar Invitational.

In August, Welch was named the National Federation of State High School Associations state coach of the year, an award chosen by the Wisconsin High School Gymnastics Association.

Each year, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has the state association select an NFHS state coach of the year. Welch was selected for 2017 based on years of service, contribution to the high school gymnastics community and her positive attitude.

“It was quite an honor,” Welch said of the award. “You’re surprised when you get something like this, but it’s certainly a reflection of the strong program that we’ve had.

“It’s nice to be recognized for the hard work you’ve done, too. We might not have the state titles that some programs have had, but we’ve done things the right way. That’s rewarding.”

Under Welch, Craig has won two Big Eight tournament titles and one conference dual-meet crown. She’s coached three individual state champions and 13 state medalists, and two of her teams advanced to the state team tournament.

Having coached for 29 years, Welch has seen the sport evolve from using wrestling mats for floor exercise because spring floors didn’t exist in the early years to the continued growth that was bolstered by the United States’ recent dominance in the Summer Olympics.

She said today’s skill level is off the charts.

“The things that the kids are doing now is incredible,” Welch said. “What used to be known as a big skill type of routine is now commonplace. And a lot of that starts with the training that for some is year-round.

“Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t even have thought of doing some of the things that you see kids do today. The skill level amazes me. Sometimes I just sit back and shake my head at how far this sport has come.”

With such longevity in the sport, Welch has coached gymnasts who later went on to become assistant coaches with her at Craig or took other coaching jobs in the area. She said that’s as rewarding as anything else.

Welch says she’s given no thought to retiring as coach.

“I love the kids, and that’s why I’m still at it,” Welch said. “I get to the gym whether it’s for practice or a meet, and it feels like home.

“I love the sport and can’t imagine not being around it. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”

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